The Cave of Altamira (Spanish: Cueva de Altamira; [ˈku̯e.βa ðe al.ta.ˈmi.ɾa]) located near the historic town Santillana del Mar in Cantabria, Spain, is renowned for its numerous parietal cave paintings featuring charcoal drawings and polychrome paintings of contemporary local fauna and human hands, created between 18,500 and 14,000 years ago during the Upper Paleolithic by Paleo human settlers. The earliest paintings in the cave were executed around 35,600 years ago.
Altamira was the first European cave for which prehistoric origin of the paintings was suggested and promoted by Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola. He published his research with the support of Juan Vilanova y Piera in 1880 to public acclaim. Nonetheless a bitter public controversy among experts ensued and continued until 1902, as reports of similar findings of prehistoric paintings in the region had accumulated and evidence could no longer be rejected.
Altamira is located in the Franco-Cantabrian region and declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO as the central element of the Cave of Altamira and Paleolithic Cave Art of Northern Spain.
The cave is approximately 1000 meters long and consists of a series of twisting passages and chambers. The main passage varies from two to six meters in height. The cave was formed through collapses following early Karst phenomena in the calcareous rock of Mount Vispieres.
Archaeological excavations in the cave floor found rich deposits of artifacts from the Upper Solutrean (c. 18,500 years ago) and Lower Magdalenian (between c. 16,500 and 14,000 years ago). Both periods belong to the Paleolithic or Old Stone Age. In the millennia between these two occupations, the cave was evidently inhabited only by wild animals. Human occupants of the site were well-positioned to take advantage of the rich wildlife that grazed in the valleys of the surrounding mountains as well as the marine life available in nearby coastal areas. Around 13,000 years ago a rockfall sealed the cave's entrance, preserving its contents until its eventual discovery, which occurred after a nearby tree fell and disturbed the fallen rocks.
Human occupation was limited to the cave mouth, although paintings were created throughout the length of the cave. The artists used charcoal and ochre or haematite to create the images, often diluting these pigments to produce variations in intensity and creating an impression of chiaroscuro. They also exploited the natural contours of the cave walls to give their subjects a three-dimensional effect. The Polychrome Ceiling is the most impressive feature of the cave, depicting a herd of extinct steppe bison (Bison priscus) in different poses, two horses, a large doe, and possibly a wild boar.
Dated to the Magdalenian occupation, these paintings include abstract shapes in addition to animal subjects. Solutrean paintings include images of horses and goats, as well as handprints that were created when artists placed their hands on the cave wall and blew pigment over them to leave a negative image. Numerous other caves in northern Spain contain Paleolithic art, but none is as complex or well-populated as Altamira.
In 1879, amateur archaeologist Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola was led by his eight-year-old daughter María to discover the cave's drawings. The cave was excavated by Sautuola and archaeologist Juan Vilanova y Piera from the University of Madrid, resulting in a much acclaimed publication in 1880 which interpreted the paintings as Paleolithic in origin. The French specialists, led by Gabriel de Mortillet and Emile Cartailhac, were particularly adamant in rejecting the hypothesis of Sautuola and Piera, and their findings were loudly ridiculed at the 1880 Prehistorical Congress in Lisbon. Due to the supreme artistic quality, and the exceptional state of conservation of the paintings, Sautuola was even accused of forgery, as he was unable to answer why there were no soot (smoke) marks on the walls and ceilings of the cave. A fellow countryman maintained that the paintings had been produced by a contemporary artist, on Sautuola's orders. Later Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola found out the artist could have used marrow fat as oil for the lamp, producing much less soot as any other combustibles. Alcohol was not available at the time as far as we know. Still, remains unexplained how the paintings particularly in Altamira cave, remained unaltered being wet (the paint still appear fresh).
It was not until 1902, when several other findings of prehistoric paintings had served to render the hypothesis of the extreme antiquity of the Altamira paintings less offensive, that the scientific society retracted their opposition to the Spaniards. That year, Emile Cartailhac emphatically admitted his mistake in the famous article, "Mea culpa d'un sceptique", published in the journal L'Anthropologie. Sautuola, having died 14 years earlier, did not live to enjoy his rehabilitation.
Further excavation work on the cave was done by Hermilio Alcalde del Río between 1902–04, the German Hugo Obermaier between 1924–25 and finally by Joaquín González Echegaray in 1981.
There is no scientific agreement on the dating of the archeological artifacts found in the cave, nor the drawings and paintings, and scientists continue to evaluate the age of the cave art at Altamira.
In 2008, researchers using uranium-thorium dating found that the paintings were completed over a period of up to 20,000 years rather than during a comparatively brief period.
A later study published in 2012 based on data obtained from further uranium-thorium dating research, dated some paintings in several caves in North Spain, including some of the claviform signs in the "Gran sala" of Altamira, and concluded that the first works in Altamira belonged to the Aurignacian culture, 35,600 years old, right at the beginning of human occupation of North Spain by modern humans. This means that these drawings could have been made by Neanderthal authors instead of homo sapiens, as assumed until now.
During the 1960s and 1970s, the paintings were being damaged by the carbon dioxide in the breath of the large number of visitors. Altamira was completely closed to the public in 1977, and reopened to limited access in 1982. Very few visitors were allowed in per day, resulting in a three-year waiting list. After green mold began to appear on some paintings in 2002, the caves were closed to public access. A replica cave and museum were built nearby and completed in 2001 by Manuel Franquelo and Sven Nebel, reproducing the cave and its art. The replica allows a more comfortable view of the polychrome paintings of the main hall of the cave, as well as a selection of minor works. It also includes some sculptures of human faces that are not visitable in the real cave.
As well as the adjacent National Museum and Research Center of Altamira there are reproductions in the National Archaeological Museum of Spain (Madrid), in the Deutsches Museum in Munich (completed 1964) and in Japan (completed 1993).
During 2010 there were plans to reopen access to the cave towards the end of that year. In December 2010, however, the Spanish Ministry of Culture decided that the cave would remain closed to the public. This decision was based on advice from a group of experts who had found that the conservation conditions inside the cave had become much more stable since the closure.
Some of the polychrome paintings at Altamira Cave are well known in Spanish popular culture. The logo used by the autonomous government of Cantabria to promote tourism to the region is based on one of the bisons in this cave. Bisonte (Spanish for "bison"), a Spanish cigarette brand of the 20th century, also used a Paleolithic style bison figure along with its logo.
The Spanish comic character and series Altamiro de la Cueva, created in 1965, are a consequence of the fame of Altamira Cave. The comic series depicts the adventures of a group of prehistoric cavemen, shown as modern people, but dressed in pieces of fur, a bit like the Flintstones.
The song "The Caves of Altamira" appears on the 1976 album The Royal Scam by jazz-rock band Steely Dan, later covered by soul group Perri.
The mid-20th-century modern dinnerware line Primitive, designed by Viktor Schreckengost for the American pottery company Salem China, was based on the bison, deer, and stick figure hunters depicted in the Altamira cave paintings.
The song "Cuevas de Altamira" (Caves of Altamira) appears on the 1978 album "Cuevas de Altamira" by the symphonic progressive rock-folk group Ibio from Cantabria. Pr The iconic bison image has been used for the cover of the poetry collection Songs for the Devil and Death by Scottish author Hal Duncan.
The protagonist in Satyajit Ray's Agantuk was inspired by the charging Bison painting to leave his home and study tribals.
In 2016, British Director Hugh Hudson released the film Altamira (called "Finding Altamira" outside Spain) about the discovery of the caves, starring Antonio Banderas and with music by Mark Knopfler.